America's war in the Philippines

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST


An International Peace Mission suggests that the U.S.-aided hunt for Abu Sayyaf is merely an excuse that enables the U.S. to establish and expand a military presence in the region.

WITH 120 United States Special Forces units assisting 6,000 Filipino troops to flush out the Abu Sayyaf band that made news by kidnapping Western tourists, the island of Basilan in the Philippines has become the so-called "second front" against terrorism.

"Links to Al Qaeda" is the reason Washington presents for zeroing in on Abu Sayyaf. However, even the Philippine government admits that there is no evidence of ties between Al Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf after 1995. Indeed, several intelligence agencies in the region have instead linked Al Qaeda to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The American presence is of course controversial. The deployment of foreign troops to deal with an internal insurgency or bandit problem is unconstitutional. The government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has sought to retain a modicum of legality by bringing in U.S. personnel under the guise of engaging them in the Balikatan ("shoulder-to-shoulder") joint military exercises. However, this explanation has not mollified critics, who not only question the legality of the U.S. presence but also fear that it will be profoundly destabilising for both the Philippines and the region.

A 14-member International Peace Mission that was composed of parliamentarians, academics, and civil society activists from nine countries visited Basilan and the neighbouring province of Zamboanga between March 23 and 26 to investigate the reasons and consequences of this sudden and expanding military commitment.

Among the issues they probed was what "added value" the U.S. troops brought to the fight against Abu Sayyaf. They found little conclusive evidence.

Indeed, as University of the Philippines Professor Roland Simbulan, a member of the mission, observed, "When it comes to counterinsurgency, the Philippine army, which has been fighting counterinsurgency wars almost continuously for the last 50 years, has probably more to teach the United States." Imparting training in the use of high-tech surveillance equipment, including pilotless spy planes, is said to be a vital contribution by the U.S. to the hunt for Abu Sayyaf. However, after over two months of the Special Forces' deployment and despite the use of high-tech equipment, the situation has not improved. An estimated 60 to 80 bandits continue to hold three hostages, including two American missionaries, and elude over 6,000 troops and their advisers on an island, which is not more than 1,359 square kilometres in area, where much of the primary forest cover has been destroyed by indiscriminate logging.

To members of the peace mission, the continuing failure of the military to quell a mere handful of bandits indicates that the main problem is political in character, not military. Abu Sayyaf appears to have a base in a Muslim majority that is resentful of their steady dispossession by a Christian settler community. More important, the bandits seem to enjoy support in high places, particularly in the provincial government and the regional military command.

Particularly striking was the testimony that members of the peace mission heard from the Catholic priest Father Cirilo Nacorda and other former Abu Sayyaf victims, who claimed that the Abu Sayyaf band that had kidnapped tourists in Palawan last year were allowed to get away after being trapped by the military. According to Nacorda, the ransom money was shared by the bandits, the army officers and the governor of the province, Wahab Akbar, who acted as the go-between.

According to a preliminary report that was drawn up by the head of the mission, if the problem is mainly political, "relying on a military solution is not likely to produce results. Dismantling the structures of collusion and corruption should be the main focus, not adding more troops and firepower." The U.S.' recent request to the Philippine government to add about 300 more troops to the 160 that have already been deployed, has caused the mission to suspect that chasing Abu Sayyaf is merely an excuse for a "strategic intent", which is to "establish and expand a military presence in the southern Philippines directed at Muslim revivalist movements there and in South-east Asia." If this is the case, it warns, "then the Philippines may be sliding into a situation of being a base for a long-term U.S. war against insurgents and revivalist movements, with all the destabilising consequences for the whole region of such an endless war."

Already, the stepped up involvement is creating more than just political problems such as the infringement of sovereignty or the threat of potential conflicts with the Philippines' neighbours, such as Malaysia or Indonesia. There are more mundane issues that could nevertheless be powder kegs, such as the return of the sex trade catering to U.S. troops or the violation of land rights in the acquisition of training sites. However, the process of increased intervention has been set in motion. And the arrival of the Americans is not unpopular. In the province of Zamboanga, the Christian majority is said to favour overwhelmingly the coming of the Americans. In Basilan itself, there is strong support for the U.S. presence in the key towns of Isabela and Lamitan, where Christians are in the majority. However, in the Muslim-dominated interior, there is allegedly much less support.

The fact is that Christians in particular appear to think that the U.S. presence is the magic bullet that will end the 30 years of almost constant warfare that has been waged between them and Muslims who were rendered a minority in their traditional homeland in Mindanao.

Since the roots of Christian-Muslim conflict lie in economic dispossession, political subordination and religious discrimination, this is an illusion that is not likely to survive the destabilising consequences of the U.S. presence.

The U.S.' allies in this unfolding war are themselves likely to be the source of many of its future frustrations. Both the U.S. and Philippine government officials said that they welcomed the mission. However, a few days after the International Peace Mission left Basilan, some island activists who had assisted in organising their trip were fired upon, while several others were arrested without warrants. Like so many other armed incidents in this conflict-ridden province, everybody knew who organised the terror campaign, and it was not Abu Sayyaf.

Inter-Press Service

Walden Bello is Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines and executive director of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute .

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